Of all the words that get overused by critics, there’s one I’d put at the top of the list. I know because I’ve used it far too often myself: quirky. In its quaint, neutered cuteness, it has become an oxymoronic cliché— a way of making unconventionality seem blandly conventional. Quirky is the perfect word for the characters in Unstrung Heroes, the first theatrical feature directed by Diane Keaton. Based on a memoir by Franz Lidz, the movie, which is set in Los Angeles in the early ’60s, is about a smart, sensitive Jewish kid, Steven Lidz (Nathan Watt), who learns that his mother (Andie MacDowell) is battling a life-threatening illness. Unable to face the pressure at home, he goes off to live with his notoriously bizarre — i.e., very quirky — uncles, who share a dank, twisty apartment that looks like a moldering insane asylum. Uncle Danny (Michael Richards) is an exuberant paranoid who sees anti-Semitism oozing from every nook and cranny. Uncle Arthur (Maury Chaykin) is a sweetly disheveled collector who crams the apartment with newspapers (bundles of them, all of which he plans to read), rubber balls (an entire closetful), and low-rent tchotchkes. The two are utterly dysfunctional misfits, yet both men, we’re meant to understand, have the courage of their own soulful lunacy.
Actually, what I saw were a couple of only-in-the-movies harmless eccentrics. Trying for a dark-toned comedy of familial mishap, Keaton dips into the sentimental fraudulence of the Harold and Maude crazy-people-are-more-in-touch-with-life- than-the-rest-of-us genre. Danny and Arthur spur young Steven on to a spirited appreciation of life’s unruly possibilities. They give him a new name, Franz, and encourage his mildly rebellious tendencies. And they put him in touch with his past — the Judaism that his father, Sid (John Turturro), has suppressed. A small-time inventor who puts all his faith in science, Sid is a man drowning in rationality. Yet Turturro, doing what feels like a soft-edged variation on his performance as the twitchy egghead Herbert Stempel in Quiz Show, makes Sid’s science-whiz gusto likable and touching. He’s so good-hearted that the film’s eagerness to embrace the uncles in all their paper-thin kookiness seems smugly arbitrary. What’s so life-affirming about these cloistered neurotics, anyway? At times, you get the uncomfortable sense that Unstrung Heroes is fetishizing their Jewishness. The film seems to be saying, It’s okay that Uncle Danny and Uncle Arthur are crazy — Jews are supposed to be crazy. It’s as if Annie Hall had stepped behind the camera and decided to celebrate the family that Alvy Singer resented.
The actors give the picture some spark. As Franz-né-Steven, Nathan Watt, a newcomer to movies, has a Silly Putty face that can look harmless one moment, penetrating the next. Andie MacDowell is playing that weeper archetype, the dying saint, but she has a calm, lovely presence (though what this serene beauty is doing married to an obsessive-compulsive like Sid is a mystery). And there are moments when you catch a glimpse of something indescribably sad in Maury Chaykin’s Uncle Arthur. Michael Richards, on the other hand, is all hyperactive surface. On Seinfeld, he’s some kind of crackpot genius — his Kramer is like a modern hipster Marx Brother — but the candied gleam that can make Richards a brilliant comedian seems opaque when he’s trying to play a character with hidden depth. When Uncle Danny gets committed, it isn’t remotely clear why anyone decided he was over the edge. His ”dementia” is weightless, and so, finally, is Unstrung Heroes. C+